Welcome to Culture in Transit


Culture in Transit is a partnership between the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO), the Brooklyn Public Library and Queens Library to bring mobile scanning equipment to smaller libraries, archives, museums, and the communities they serve. We are one of 22 projects to win the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight News Challenge on Libraries. Our work falls into two main areas:

  • Community Events (Queens Library and Brooklyn Public Library): We bring our  mobile digitization kit to library branches and invite residents to bring in family photos and memorabilia. We scan the materials, which are returned to the donors along with a flash drive of digital copies. The digital copies are also included in own digital catalogs, and shared with the Digital Public Library of America.
  • Institutional Scanning (METRO): We bring our mobile digitization kit to METRO member institutions across New York City and Westchester. We scan selected collections and make them available on METRO’s digital platform and the Digital Public Library of America.

Please follow our blog (email subscription in the sidebar!) to get regular updates on our project, and read our documentation as it is developed.

Equipment Review: Digitization Solution for Lantern Slides and Glass Plate Negatives

During my site visit to the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen (GSMT), in preparation for on site work there, the Archivist presented some lantern slides and glass plate negatives that they were keen to have digitized. Our scanner, the Epson V600, has the capability to scan transparencies but is limited in scope in terms of size of transparencies it can deal with and I knew looking at the material, they were too large for our scanner.

Epson V600 transparency capabilities:
Transparency size:

Supported film size:
35mm mounted slides
35mm film strips
Medium format strips 6x22cm

GSMT lantern slide size: 8.5x10cm
GSMT glass plate negative size: 35x28cm

Lantern slides and glass plate negatives abound in archives everywhere. They’re easy to digitize (if they’re in robust condition); you just need the right equipment in order to do so. Knowing our scanner could not accommodate them and knowing that I wanted to digitize them during my time on site at GSMT, I spent some time researching additional equipment to add to our kit.

I quickly settled on the solution of camera, light box and Photoshop . We technically didn’t need Photoshop for the lantern slides (aside from some cropping) but we did need Photoshop for the glass plate negatives as it enabled us to turn the negative into a positive.

We already had the camera, tripod and Photoshop; we just needed to add a light box to our kit. However, in this instance we also purchased a new camera lens. We already had a lens that came with our Canon Rebel T5; an 18-35mm lens. We’ve had some issues with lens curvature that’s purely due to the construction of the lens; the curve has been noticeable in some items I’ve digitized and so I’ve been thinking for some time about adding another lens to our kit. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so and I spent time researching different types of lenses, settling on the Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM Lens for the job. This lens has a flat field of focus and so does not reproduce the curvature our original lens does. This will not only help with types of material such as transparencies but with other formats that are unsuitable for scanning. However, it does have a limitation in terms of the size of item we can photograph because it is a short macro lens, but overall, it’s addition to our kit really helps with our copy-stand digitization solution.    

Our new Canon Macro Lens

Our new Canon EF-S 60mm Macro Lens

We’ve used B&H a lot during the compilation of our mobile digitization kits and they’ve also given us good advice on a few occasions when we’ve had questions, so it was my first port of call in search of a light box. As with everything in our kits, I needed it to be portable – as lightweight as possible and small enough to fit in my backpack. This need definitely scaled down my available options but I was able to find a product that suited our needs.

Our light box and camera solution for digitizing lantern slides.

Our light box and camera solution for digitizing lantern slides.

I opted for the Porta Trace 10”x12” – it was large enough to accommodate the lantern slides that needed digitizing but small enough to be able to fit in my backpack for easy transportation. The lightsource is LED which gives a more even distribution of light and does not heat up as quickly as other light sources. Purchasing this particular light box discounted our ability to digitize the glass plate negatives as they were too large but luckily, GSMT had a light box that was big enough to accommodate them, enabling their digitization as well – a bonus!

The light box and macro lens worked extremely well for the lantern slides and all 78 were digitized successfully. We are glad of the opportunity we had to work with GSMT and are happy that not only were we able to expand our kit enabling us to accommodate the digitization of different formats but also that we were able to digitize GSMT’s material successfully and allow access of them to wider audiences.

One of the lantern slides digitized with our light box and camera.

One of the lantern slides digitized with our light box and camera.

Wrapping It All Up: Institutional Scanning at Fordham University

All good things must come to an end. And, so it is, that June saw me wheel my mobile digitization kit to the last institution we would be working with as part of the Culture in Transit project.

Fordham University was my last stop. Set in lush grounds, high up in the Bronx, it neighbors our very first CIT institution, the Wildlife Conservation Society – a nice way to wrap up the project; to end where we began!

The items to be digitized were a collection of pamphlets and broadsides concerned with the Italian Unification. This was the political and social movement during the nineteenth century that saw the consolidation of different states of the Italian peninsula form into the Kingdom of United Italy.

One of the broadsides scanned at Fordham University.

One of the broadsides scanned at Fordham University.

The pamphlets and broadsides are an important collection of documents that offer detail into the Italian Unification from the perspective of the Catholic Church. They give a snapshot of the Church at a specific time and place and deal with not only the politics of the Unification but touch on different aspects of the unification process as well as general daily life during this period from a Catholic point of view.

The scanning at Fordham also provided a great new testing opportunity for a new scanner we added to our kit recently; the Epson 11000XL*. This is a tried and tested scanner that is reliably used in many an archive across the country and also internationally. We wanted to add it to the kit to offer more flexibility in the size of documents we could scan as well as the flexibility to be able to digitize a broader range of transparencies compared to the V600.

One of the broadsides scanned using the Epson 11000XL.

One of the broadsides scanned using the Epson 11000XL.

We love our V600 but this addition allows us to offer an even more comprehensive service and certainly, in this instance, allowed us to digitize the Fordham pamphlets with ease. The scan bed was large enough on the 11000XL to scan the pamphlet 2 pages at a time; the V600 would have only allowed for 1 page at a time, so more time would have been spent, positioning the pamphlet on the scan bed, adjusting the filename and doing the pre-scan in Silverfast – only seconds for each page but it would have added up to substantial minutes over all pamphlets scanned. It does take longer to scan with the Epson 11000XL vs. the V600 but I don’t view this as lost time as I was able to work on metadata and derivative creation/derivative editing whilst the 11000XL scanned.

There’s a lot of activity going on behind the scenes now to prepare the collection for ingest in METRO’s Digital Culture. We’ll be, as always, announcing the publication of the collection on Twitter in the coming weeks – so stay tuned!

*disclaimer: The Epson 11000XL is much larger and heavier than the V600. It isn’t our first choice scanner for mobile digitization jobs – but we love it all the same!

Teaching DPLA

Last month, Sarah and I hosted an educational session about the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) at BPL’s Info Commons Lab. Hosting this session was a natural fit for Culture in Transit, as we contribute all the material we collect through the project to the DPLA, and regularly talk to our donors about how we share the materials we collect. We rarely have the opportunity to discuss the resources offered by DPLA in depth, so we wanted to host a public event to provide this education for our communities. We envisioned the event as a workshop, incorporating a discussion of the mission, development, structure, and infrastructure of DPLA with an opportunity for participants to have hands-on instruction in accessing and utilizing the resources that DPLA offers.

Screenshot of dp.la.

While we were preparing for the event, I was accepted into the DPLA Community Reps program, which gave us access to additional outreach materials, as well as the support of DPLA’s Engagement and Use Coordinator Samantha Gibson. Using these resources, we developed a lecture giving an overview of DPLA, as well as detailed tutorial about how to navigate through the many features of DPLA. We gave particular focus to saved items and lists, as well as the Primary Source Sets. These were both really popular with our workshop participants. We also developed a list of suggested tasks for the final section of the workshop, a self-guided exploration:

  • Sign up for a user account
  • Find an item contributed by your organization
  • Find an item from your hometown or somewhere you’ve lived
  • Find an item from the year you were born
  • Search material from your borough
          • Explore how to refine your search
          • Find an item in Spanish & German
          • Find an item from your neighborhood
  • Save all these items to your user account & make a List

Since the event was hosted by BPL’s Info Commons Lab, we were able to provide a laptop for each participant. Our event participants arrived with a hugely varying amount of knowledge – some had never used DPLA, others were from a DPLA Content Hub. Sarah and I circulated through the room during this final portion of the workshop and gave one-on-one instruction as needed.

A participant's view of the workshop.

A participant’s view of the workshop.

We asked participants to complete workshop evaluations, which will be useful in planning future events. We learned that most participants hoped to use DPLA for their own research, or as an education tool. We could have lingered more on the API. Most people had already heard of DPLA, but hadn’t explored in depth. In our own assessment, we wished we had given more examples of types of content, and really showcased a few examples of great material. We also noticed that the map and timeline searches were the most confusing for new users – more detailed instruction for these search tools might be warranted in a future event!


Story Circles with Richmond Hill Love Letter

For our last two events in Queens as part of the Culture in Transit grant program, we partnered with local artist Bridget Bartolini from the Five Boro Story Project. With additional funding from the New York Council for the Humanities, Bridget developed a series of story-telling, art and oral history events focused on the neighborhood of Richmond Hill that will stretch through the remainder of 2016. The two collaborative events, held over the course of the past month, combined our community scanning model with Bridget’s facilitated story circles. In addition to scanning new material about Richmond Hill, neighbors got to meet and share stories of the neighborhood.

Story circle participants at the Lefferts Community Library. Photo by Alex Gordon.

Bridget grew up in Richmond Hill and facilitates storytelling events throughout the city. Participants are given the opportunity to share a brief story (3 minutes) about their experiences growing up, living, or working in the local neighborhood. Our two events, titled Richmond Hill Love Letter and held at the Lefferts and Richmond Hill Community Libraries, brought together a wide-range community members and long-term residents. After everyone shares a story, the group is guided through an informal discussion of the ideas and issues raised during the story sharing. At Queens Memory we are always trying to encourage our donors have informal discussions about the neighborhood, so it was great to see what this could look like as a more facilitated process.

Working with a donor before the story circle.

Working with a donor before the story circle.

We brought our mobile scanning equipment, and set up by the entrance to the room. We had hoped that people would arrive on time, complete consent and metadata forms for their materials, and then Bridget would start the story circle. In reality, people arrived throughout the event, and sometimes were not interested in joining the story circle. We spoke with donors quietly and scanned their materials while others were sharing stories. Although it was great to be in the same room, it sometimes felt awkward to scan while people were talking to the group, especially when the story circle participants had quiet voices. The collaboration also underlined the amount of communication needed to get participants to bring material to be digitized. Despite the neighborhood history and storytelling focus of the events, most participants did not bring physical material to contribute. It will be interesting to see how the partnership progresses (beyond my tenure with Culture in Transit), and whether the regular story circle participants will donate material to Queens Memory in the future.